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Interview with Catherine Helbing

In networking she was a surefire success. Now she is committed to helping others to do the same. Catherine Helbing is the Chairperson of the Student Committee Biology and also masters besides her studies a part-time job. She is convinced that good organization is the be-all and end-all.


Why did you decide to study Biology at the Biozentrum?
At the “Gymnasium” I had a great biology teacher, who had previously worked in research. She explained many things to us about immunology, diseases, single cell organisms and so on. I was lucky, as organismic biology didn’t really interest me much. I am particularly fascinated by bacteria. We don’t see them but they are everywhere and live in many symbiotic relationships with us. Then, during my third “Gym” year, I had the opportunity to do an internship at the Biozentrum in the field of microbiology. That was great. I worked with my own cell culture and, above all, I also experienced how international studying was at the Biozentrum.

How was the start of the Biology course of studies?
At the beginning, along with biology, there are many lectures in mathematics, physics and chemistry. And to be honest, I have never been so good at mathematics and in chemistry only fairly average. So, the first two weeks came as a bit of a shock. But you just have to keep at it and everyone is very helpful. If you have a question, you can ask the professor. Extracurricular tutoring is offered and most of all we helped each other. I found the lecture “Introduction to Biology” especially good, as it really covers all the fields and shows just how wide ranging the subject is. In the first semester we started with plants, animals and microorganisms. Then we went more into depth in the second semester, with cell biology, evolutionary biology and ecology.

In the first two years you also have the choice of elective subjects. What subjects did you choose?
I studied Spanish for one and a half years. Then I took Invasion Biology, Marine Biology – this subject was fantastic – Toxinology and Photography. So, quite different things. There is a huge range of subjects from which to choose from, depending on your interests, and I think it is wonderful that you are greatly encouraged to also attend lectures outside of the faculty, experience other areas and broaden your horizons.

How did you find the third year? There is, after all, a strong practical focus with the block courses.
In the first two years you gather much knowledge. But it is during the block courses, when you are in in the lab the whole day, that you really start to understand what research is about. We are about 50 students and, depending on the block course, research groups from the respective area come to work with us and help conduct experiments in the teaching labs. This is super, as then you have the chance to directly ask the researchers any questions you may have and they are also happy to show you their labs. And this is how, step by step, the direction I want to follow has emerged.

And which direction is that?
At first I thought that stem cells could be interesting. Then it quickly became clear to me that it would be microbiology after all. I got to know all the labs in this field during the block courses. Originally, I was interested in one particular group, simply because they were so great during the block course, but then I found the topic was too specialized. I wanted to do research in a wider context. And so, I landed back with my «dear» bacteria (she laughs) and will do my master’s in Christoph Dehio’s group.

Taking a glance into the future, do you already have plans for the time after your masters?
I have no idea of how it would be to work in industry. Of course, scientists employed in industry come here and tell us about their work. But you really have to experience yourself what the daily routine feels like, so, for a start, I am sure to undertake an internship in industry. Perhaps I will do a PhD after that but fist I would like to go abroad.

Back to the beginning. Did you need any help to learn the ins and outs?
Basically, there is a buddy system, so each new student is allocated a personal contact student from an advanced semester. But I didn’t have many questions. The information in the internet was crystal clear to me. And Susan Kaderli from the Student Office Biology is fantastic. If you should ever have a concern, she always helps you. And there are also the “Student Committee Biology” Apéros where you can always get information from someone.

Speaking of the “Student Committee Biology”, you are their chairperson. How did this come about?
After my fist year, I asked myself if this was really the student life that I had imagined and so it was quite easy for a colleague to convince me to join the Student Committee Biology. I planned to take on one of the standard jobs, such as Finances or Events. But shortly after, the then chairperson asked me whether I would be interested to be her successor. Despite my initial hesitation, as I also work alongside my studies, I accepted (she laughs).

What does the Student Committee Biology do?
For one thing, we organize numerous events, from the First Semester Event, to the Master’s Event, the St. Nicholas and Easter Apéros and the Secondhand Book Sale. In short, it is primarily about promoting networking among the students. We are also a contact point for information and have an intermediary function in case any problem arise. We have attendance rights in the Biology Teaching Committee meetings and in general have a good insight into what is going on behind the scenes in the Biology Course of Studies. The Student Committee represents the interests of the biology students at the student and education policy levels of the University.

And what is your student job?
I am a waitress in a small beer brewery in Riehen. Luckily, I have a very flexible boss, so that depending on where I am up to in my studies I can work more or less hours. In the first two years I worked once or twice a week. During the block courses this was not possible but, on the other hand, I worked through the whole summer.

Do you have a tip to share with prospective students?
Good organization is the be-all and end-all. And I also think it is important not to be shy and to simply ask if you have no idea what to do or need support. We all really help each other here.